CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Coach Michael Locksley entered this season with some reassurance that isn’t common around the Maryland football program. He had a solid quarterback in junior Taulia Tagovailoa, a healthy returner who now has starting experience to go along with his potential.

A couple of weeks before the 2021 campaign began, Locksley acknowledged how Tagovailoa’s understanding of the system would help this offense, but he didn’t like talking too much about the stability at the position. Because of his past stints with the Terrapins, Locksley is familiar with all of the quarterback injuries that have, for years, led to a carousel of starters. That afternoon in August, Locksley jokingly said he didn’t want to risk jinxing anything, given this favorable spot the Terps have finally found themselves in with Tagovailoa.

Three games into the season, Tagovailoa’s experience and composure have paid dividends as the staff hoped. He has led Maryland to this 3-0 start, most recently with a fourth-quarter comeback in Friday’s Big Ten opener at Illinois. Tagovailoa didn’t deliver a flashy performance, and the offense stalled multiple times in the red zone. But on the final two drives, he looked like a calm veteran the team could rely on en route to the 20-17 victory.

The Terps needed a touchdown to tie the game with 4:50 remaining, and Tagovailoa methodically led his unit down the field with precision. His 10-yard touchdown pass to running back Tayon Fleet-Davis capped an eight-play drive that included two rushes for a total of 11 yards, five passes for 75 yards and just one incompletion. Tagovailoa connected with four different teammates on those passes, and that receiving depth has been another major bright spot for this year’s team.

Maryland’s defense shined again, particularly with back-to-back sacks from lineman Greg Rose, a walk-on transfer from junior college who earned a scholarship this fall. (On the previous Illini series, Rose combined with teammate Deshawn Holt for the stop on a third-and-two play that forced a punt and soon led to Fleet-Davis’s tying touchdown.) That group of defensive players was “locked in on one job,” cornerback Tarheeb Still said, “and that was just getting the ball back.” With the game tied and less than a minute to go, Illinois had to punt from its own 7-yard line, gifting the ball to Tagovailoa not too far from field goal range.

Tagovailoa rose to the moment again, this time with a 26-yard completion to sophomore wide receiver Rakim Jarrett and then a six-yard pass to Fleet-Davis. Joseph Petrino watched his team’s offense inch closer to the end zone while he kicked into a net on the sideline, preparing for what became a 32-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.

Maryland’s offense struggled to find rhythm early on and then was hampered by a pair of fumbles in the third quarter. But during those final moments, it matched the defensive effort with two decisive drives to win the game.

“Didn't see any panic,” Locksley said. “I thought Lia managed the offense as well as you can, especially with us being in that situation.”

Tagovailoa finished with 350 passing yards, eclipsing the 300-yard benchmark for the third time in his seven career starts. It’s still early in the season, and these conference matchups will continue to become more difficult. But if Tagovailoa’s success continues, he could produce one of the best seasons from a Maryland quarterback in recent years.

Tagovailoa already has accumulated 956 passing yards with an impressive 75.5 completion percentage. Only two Terps in the school’s record book have thrown for more than 3,000 yards in a season: Scott Milanovich in 1993 (3,499 yards) and John Kaleo in 1992 (3,392).

Only seven Maryland players have hit the 2,500-yard mark. Even with a substantial dip in production, Tagovailoa could reach that total. He’s been averaging more than 300 yards, and roughly 171 yards per game through the end of the regular season would get him there.

In the win over the Illini, Tagovailoa’s performance wasn’t filled with deep balls to receivers sprinting downfield, and he said afterward that he could have scrambled outside the pocket a bit more often during the first half. But Tagovailoa did enough, and he navigated his third straight game of the season without a major mistake. Tagovailoa credits how he prepares and how he talks with offensive coordinator Dan Enos throughout the game to stay even-keeled.

“I think my confidence has always been the same,” Tagovailoa said Friday night, explaining how Enos teaches players to embrace the idea that they do the work needed to win during the week at practice and in the film room.

Locksley has said that “the gift and the curse of Lia is he doesn’t give up on plays.” Tagovailoa has taken some sacks when he could have thrown away the ball, and Locksley pointed out a play in the season opener against West Virginia when Tagovailoa predetermined that he would carry the ball on fourth down rather than making the proper read.

But for the most part, Tagovailoa has avoided major errors this season. Both of the Terps’ fumbles against Illinois were committed by running backs — Fleet-Davis when the team was seven yards from the end zone and sophomore Peny Boone on the first play of another drive.

After Tagovailoa transferred from Alabama and earned the Maryland starting job as a sophomore, he threw three interceptions in losses at Northwestern and Indiana. In each game, those mistakes seemed to snowball into more. This season, albeit against three unranked opponents, including Howard of the Football Championship Subdivision, Tagovailoa has seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

“I feel like I am getting better at it, making my decisions,” Tagovailoa said. “I’ve just got to continue to keep working.”

A marathon of conference matchups still lies ahead for Tagovailoa, and those tests will be more telling. But his poise under pressure in his first road game as a starter in front of a crowd helped launch Maryland to its first 3-0 start since 2016. Bowl eligibility seems to be obtainable for this roster of players who have never reached the postseason during their Maryland careers.

Through the past three weeks, Tagovailoa has proved how much he has developed in a year. He stands at the heart of Locksley’s effort to rejuvenate this program, and now those final two drives in the win at Illinois provide another piece of assurance that the plan is working.